Boris Johnson was in his element. He faced a hall filled with 1400 people yearning to feel good about being Conservative, who at this tepid and uncertain conference have not found themselves blessed with many opportunities to experience that emotion.
“It’s the hour of Boris,” my neighbour near the top of the enormous theatre, Councillor Suky Samra from Walsall Council, said. “I think he’ll deliver today.”
On my other side was Councillor Rose Martin, likewise from Walsall, who said: “If we don’t take a clear direction on Brexit we will suffer in Walsall.
“David Cameron went off with his shopping trolley to Brussels. Came back with nothing. And we still haven’t got anything in the trolley.”
Johnson entered to a standing ovation, which he managed after a few moments to quell with downward motions of his hands.In the moment of silence which followed, someone near me cried out in a loud voice, “Chuck Chequers!”
“It is great to be hear in Birmingham where so many thoroughfares in the city are already named after our superb Conservative Mayor,” he began.
The Mayor, of course, is called Andy Street. This was not only an enjoyable joke: it also dispelled any fears that Johnson might seek, in a misguided attempt to portray himself as a conventionally solemn statesman, to refrain from making people laugh.
Not that the speech lacked a serious message, which he very soon enunciated in these words:
“My friends, there is only one thing I really worry about in this critical autumn of 2018, and that is that after 200 years this oldest and most successful of all political parties should somehow lose confidence in its basic belief in freedom.
“And that after 1000 years of independence this country might really lose confidence in its democratic institutions.
“And that we should be so demoralised and so exhausted as to submit those institutions – forever – to foreign rule.”
How the audience loved that. A great burst of applause greeted the word “freedom”. No longer was the mood tepid and uncertain. Johnson communicated the belief that a better Brexit is within our grasp, if only the Prime Minister will reach out and seize it.
He proceeded to flay the Labour Party: “surely to goodness we can take on this Tony Benn tribute act and wallop it”.
This is can-do conservatism, and it went down wonderfully well. He told a short story about his time on The Wolverhampton Express & Star, when he had to report on a couple with a small and sickly child who were in despair, and felt themselves to be “prisoners of the system”, because the council would do nothing to deal with the health-wrecking damp and mould in their council flat.
Johnson presented himself as the liberator who will free the whole country from the chains which Theresa May is unable to find the strength to throw off. By implication, he accused her of a very grave crime indeed:
“And it occurs to me that the authors of the Chequers proposal risk prosecution under the 14th century Statute of Praemunire, which says that no foreign court or government shall have jurisdiction in this country.”
Another great cheer – possibly the first time for many years that the Statute of Praemunire has been cheered at a Conservative conference.
A semblance of loyalty to the Prime Minister was preserved, for Johnson said tshe can be the person who chucks Chequers and pursues a full, uninhibited Brexit.
There were more cheers when he denounced the idea of a second referendum, proposed by “distinguished former Prime Ministers”, which would be a “disaster for trust in politics”.
This was a moment of catharsis for Conservatives. Johnson was helping them to purge their emotions.
“The speech was excellent,” Cllr Martin said when Johnson had gone. “We need a good deal now.”
The Remain establishment will hate this speech, and will condemn Johnson as an unscrupulous populist. From the atrocious crime of seeking to give people the Brexit for which they actually voted, it is impossible to acquit him.